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Digitisation of National Herbarium of NSW Collection

The National Herbarium of New South Wales' priceless collection of 1.4 million preserved plant specimens dating back to 1769 from New Zealand and Captain Cook’s landings in Australia in 1770 is going digital.

The digitisation will see the botanic specimens captured in high-definition images, making them available online to all users locally, nationally and internationally and reducing the impact on the delicate Herbarium specimens by reducing the amount of handling.

This digitisation project is part of moving the collection to a new Herbarium being built at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan, which was announced in June 2018.

Some plant specimens date back to 1769.

Project timing

The process will take up to two years to complete and is the largest herbarium imaging project in the southern hemisphere, to date.

The National Herbarium of New South Wales will be closed to the public from December 2018 until we relocate it to the new Centre of Innovation for Plant Sciences at the Australian Botanic Garden in 2022.

Project partner

To undertake this massive project, the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney is partnering with one of the world’s most renowned digitisation companies, Picturae.

Based in the Netherlands, Picturae has vast experience with the mass digitisation of the world’s most prominent herbarium collections. The company’s recent collaborations include the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC; and the Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London.

 For the project duration, Picturae will partner with a local Sydney based company, International Conservation Services, which will deliver significant upskilling for the local industry, creating opportunities to contribute to other digitisation projects for New South Wales and Australian cultural institutions.

For the transcription of the specimen labels, Picturae has partnered with Alembo, a company also based in the Netherlands. Alembo has a large auxiliary branch in their Paramaribo office in Suriname, South America, where most of the actual transcription work for the digitisation project is taking place. 

There are over 1.4 million preserved plant specimens.

Herbarium impacts

The Herbarium will close to the public from Monday 21 December 2018.

Specimens on loan to researchers at the Herbarium will be returned to their home institutions by June 2019.

 During the digitisation period, the Herbarium will be accepting returned loans. These loans will be processed but may not be incorporated into the Herbarium collection until it moves to its new home at the Australian Botanic Garden.

As specimen digitisation progresses, we will make the images and associated data accessible to the public and researchers through the AVH (Australasian Virtual Herbarium), ALA (Atlas of Living Australia) and other sources. We will advise more on this in mid-2019 and as information comes to hand.

 We thank all of our partners, stakeholders and community for their patience and understanding while we undertake this once in a lifetime opportunity project and transition the collection to its new home at Mount Annan to reopen in 2022.

Why are you digitising the collection?

The digitisation of the current 1.4 million specimens will be a breakthrough for Australian science.

Digitisation means preservation – each time our scientists retrieve and examine a fragile specimen; there is a risk it could be damaged. Viewing a specimen digitally makes this risk disappear.

It also allows us to create many more opportunities to collaborate and share knowledge with scientists across Australia and worldwide. It opens the collections to the people of New South Wales, Australia and the world.

Plant science is vital to our future. Preserving our priceless collection digitally means we can preserve these specimens indefinitely for future generations of scientists and the people of Australia.

Institutions from all over the world will have access to the data.

What does it mean for the collection and science in general?

The digitisation will see the Herbarium’s 1.4 million preserved botanical specimens captured into high-definition images, making them available online, reducing the impact on delicate samples through ongoing handling.

The collection is a crucial resource for local and international researchers and ecological consultants, and assists organisations in making conservation decisions. It is a vital part of New South Wales' scientific heritage.

By going digital, we will create many more opportunities to collaborate and share knowledge with scientists across Australia and worldwide.

Plant science is vital to our future. Preserving our priceless collection digitally means we can preserve these specimens indefinitely for future generations of scientists.

Once the collection is moved the specimens will once again become available to researchers to use.

Who will be digitising the National Herbarium of New South Wales' collection?

The Herbarium’s priceless collection is set to go digital in collaboration with world renowned digitisation company, Picturae. Based in the Netherlands, Picturae has vast experience with the mass digitisation of the world’s most prominent herbaria collections. 

For the transcription of the specimen labels, Picturae has partnered with Alembo, a company also based in the Netherlands. Alembo has a large auxiliary branch in their Paramaribo office in Suriname, South America, where most of the actual transcription work for the digitisation project is taking place. 

This will be their first Australian project in partnership with a local New South Wales company, International Conservation Services (ICS), which deliver significant upskilling for the local industry, creating opportunities to contribute to other digitisation projects for New South Wales and Australian cultural institutions.

Picturae’s recent collaborations include Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, as well as the Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London.

How did you engage Picturae?

Picturae were engaged through a thorough and competitive tender process.

How can you guarantee no damage to the collection during the digitisation process?

Picturae have handled over 12 million herbarium specimens without a single incident.

How will they physically digitise the collection?

A massive, conveyor belt driven, imaging system will be set up inside the Herbarium. Picturae also recruit local staff and provide an upskilling opportunity for the duration of the project.

How much will the project cost and take to complete?

$2.195M and up to two years.

What happens once the physical collection is digitised?

The collection will be stored in preparation for its move to the new Centre for Innovation in Plant Sciences at the Australian Botanic Garden in Western Sydney. Once the collection is moved the specimens will once again become available to researchers to use.

Where will the digital images of the Herbarium collection be made available?

The project will be linking in with national and international biodiversity data providers to ensure the accessibility of the collection to researchers, educators, scientists and the public.

Data and images will be shared through the Australasian Virtual Herbarium, Atlas of Living Australia, and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

Data and images will also be made available through the National Herbarium of New South Wales' PlantNET website.

The project is expected to take up to two years.